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A Small, Good Thing

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The short story A Small, Good Thing by Raymond Carver tells of two American parents dealing with their son's hospitalisation and death as the result of a hit-and-run car accident. The insensitive actions of their local baker add to their anger and confusion, yet by the end of the story, leave them with a sense of optimism and strength. With such content, Carver runs the risk of coming across as sentimental; however, this is not the case, and the anguish of the parents and their shock at the situation is expressed with dignity and understatement. It is a story with a broad appeal: the simple prose makes it accessible to a wide audience, while the complex themes and issues make it appealing to the educated reader. Written in Carver's characteristically minimalist style, the story poignantly evokes not only the trauma of the death of a child, but also the breakdown of communication and empathy in society. The plain and direct narrative style suits the content, conveying the lack of communication that is central to the narrative - between the parents, between the hospital staff, and with the baker. Critically, it is generally considered one of Carver's strongest short stories. It is a tale of isolation and of grief, but also of hope, and, with its fluid, pared-down style, clearly demonstrates why Carver is widely regarded as one of the greatest writers of the late 20th century.

On the surface, the story of A Small, Good Thing is simple and universal. Thirty-three-year-old Ann Weiss orders a cake for her son's Scotty's eighth birthday and is a little put off by the baker's cold attitude - "(he) was not jolly. There were no pleasantries between them, just the minimum exchange of words, the necessary information." However, she soon forgets all about both the baker and the cake when her son is hit by a car on the way to school and, though he initially seems fine, later collapses and is hospitalised. Although the doctors and hospital staff continue to reassure Ann and her husband that their son will be fine - "no coma, Dr. Francis had emphasized, no coma, when he saw the alarm in the parents' eyes" - Scotty still does not wake up, and the situation becomes increasingly serious. At the same time, the parents are tormented by late-night phone calls from the baker - "Your Scotty, I got him ready for you...Did you forget him?" - whose mysterious messages lead them to believe he is a psychopath, or the hit-and-run driver who put Scotty into a coma. Then, abruptly, Scotty dies - "the doctors called it a hidden occlusion and said it was a one-in-a-million circumstance." Numb and shaken, the parents return home - but after another taunting prank call, Ann realizes that it is the baker who has been calling, and confronts him in his store; he is instantly remorseful when he learns of the child's death, and offers Ann and Howard some cinnamon rolls - "a small, good thing in a time like this." His empathy helps the parents to deal with Scotty's death and to find some small measure of hope for the future.

On a deeper level, A Small, Good Thing is concerned with more complex themes and ideas. Central is the idea of communication, and lack of communication. Carver conveys the Weiss family as generally good people. They are a relatively close-knit, function well as a family, and are grateful for what they have - which we see, for example, in Ann choosing Scotty's favourite chocolate birthday cake, and in Howard reminiscing about his life - "He was happy and, so far, lucky - he knew that." They are, on the whole, a typical family; however, at the same time, the communication between the family members is lacking. Carver shows this in a subtle yet effective way. Firstly, Scotty has no direct dialogue in the story - literally, no communication. Secondly, early in the story, Scotty is not specifically referred to by name except indirectly; instead, he is called "the child," and "the birthday boy." It is not until later in the story, as the parents realize the fragility of life, that he is referred to more directly - "'Scotty,' his mother said, moving to the bed. 'Hey, Scott,' his father said. 'Hey, son."

The failure of communication in the world of A Small, Good Thing is also represented more directly. For example, the parents feel unable to communicate with the hospital staff who treat Scotty. This happens literally, through the two orderlies who take Scotty for his brain scan - "the orderlies stood at either end of the gurney without saying anything, though once one of the men made a comment to the other in their own language, and the other man nodded slowly in response." It is also represented through Ann and Howard's frustration and confusion, through their sharp questions and angry demands - "Why won't he wake up?... I want some answers from these people." At the same time, Ann and Howard do not initially allow each other to share the experience of Scotty's accident - "She realized with a start that, until now, it had only been happening to her and to Scotty. She hadn't let Howard into it, though he was there and needed all along." And yet the trauma of their mutual experience serves to bridge the gap between them and fosters a deeper understanding: "They seemed to feel each other's insides now, as though the worry had made them transparent in a perfectly natural way." As such, Carver gives an insightful view into the way grief can serve not only to alienate but also to bring together those affected by it.

While the parents serve to represent the breakdown of communication, it is the character of the baker who truly epitomizes it in A Small, Good Thing. Initially described as "not rude, just abrupt," his lack of understanding is conveyed through his nasty prank phone calls and mysterious messages. Ann judges him harshly, even before his actions with the birthday cake, wondering whether he has ever been anything but a baker. She makes no effort to understand him - instead, she reasons that he, old enough to be her father, must have had children of his own. Rather than empathizing with his situation, Ann only views the baker through the distortion of her own perceptions and experiences. Carver encourages us to follow Ann's reasoning, keeping to the limited third person perspective throughout the baker's first scene. No explanation is given for his behaviour; we see it only as Ann does. Later, after the death of Scotty, Ann calls the baker "you evil bastard...you evil son-of-a-bitch." And yet when, in the final scene, the parents confront the baker, unleashing their pent-up anger and grief upon him, they find him to be human after all - "I'm not an evil man, I don't

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